Led by a six-man senior class, the No. 12 Wisconsin men's basketball team (21-6, 11-4 Big Ten) tries to complete an undefeated home schedule today by beating up the Northwestern Wildcats (16-11, 6-10) again.
When these two teams met in Evanston a month ago, the Badgers were nearly perfect. Wisconsin put on an unusually efficient offensive show, scoring 1.552 PPP while holding Northwestern to 0.915 PPP in a 32-point rout. Josh Gasser's triple-double was just the icing on the cake. Expecting a repeat performance might be a stretch, but you would expect the Kohl Center to be amped up to give the seniors a memorable send off.
This year's senior class is the biggest of Bo Ryan's tenure in Madison and boasts three Badger starters in Jon Leuer, Keaton Nankivil and Tim Jarmusz. Even the two walk-ons, Wquinton Smith and Brett Valentyn, have found roles in the rotation this season, while redshirt senior J.P. Gavinski continues to contribute in practice. Once again, the departing players are a group that every Badger fan can be proud of.
On the opposing bench you have Northwestern, whose dreams of a first-ever NCAA bid have fallen by the wayside after two separate three-game losing streaks in Big Ten play. The Wildcats simply were not talented enough across the board after the departure of Kevin Coble this fall. Northwestern's own wildly underrated point guard, senior Michael Thompson, leads the remaining Wildcats in minutes, assists, steals and free throw percentage.
We have already discussed the impact Leuer and Nankivil will leave on the Wisconsin record book. The two players split time as the fifth starter during their sophomore season, and have provided UW with a unique blend of athleticism and shooting acumen ever since.
Leuer's skills hinted at a rise to stardom ever since his freshman year, but seeing him reach his potential in the last year has been a pleasure. Badger fans hope to see him playing on an even bigger stage in the near future. Nankivil's progression has been steadier, but nonetheless, it has been good. As a Madison native myself, it is always a little extra satisfying to see hometown guys like Nankivil do well. Watching him learn to balance his cerebral approach to life with Ryan's demands on the court has made the year even more enjoyable. As a bonus, both big men are playing defense far better than they did a year ago, which has been crucial to the team's success.
Nankivil and Leuer were joined as starters last season by Jarmusz, whom Ryan reinserted into the starting lineup earlier this year once again. The most-maligned of the six seniors, Jarmusz has dealt with injuries and an inconsistent shot in his four years, but is a better than average career 3-point shooter (35.3%). The former state champ from Oshkosh has emerged to become one of the most efficient players in the nation and currently boasts the third-lowest turnover rate in the country also.
Valentyn and Smith have left their own impression on the Wisconsin faithful in during their last hurrah. Hailing from nearby Verona, Valentyn played a season-high 11 minutes in the first meeting against Michigan and hit a cold-blooded 3-point dagger to help clinch the win. It should not have been a huge surprise to those who saw him light up the Red and White Scrimmage to start the season. His one-of-a-kind shooting stroke has been deadly in practice all year long and he may be needed to knock down a few more yet.
When I think of Smith, I will never forget his refusal to give up the ball during his tussle with Purdue's Lewis Jackson. The pound-for-pound strongest man on the team was called into duty this season as the relief ball handler for Jordan Taylor and performed admirably as Gasser found his footing at the college level. I will also remember Smith for his dance moves in the annual Night of the Grateful Red introductions.
Despite all the message board pages dedicated to him over the past five years, Gavinski has been the biggest mystery of them all. He is the fifth homegrown member of this senior class and has given Wisconsin's scout team a valuable 6'11" player to battle every day in practice. But on Senior Day, I suspect his ovation will be as big as any when he gets his last chance to shine in front of his home fans.
So enjoy the game and show these seniors your appreciation.